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High court: Sovereign immunity doesn’t protect state in teen’s death
Georgia’s Supreme Court has ruled that a Thomas County woman may proceed with a lawsuit alleging negligence in her 18-year-old son’s death at a state-run mental health and drug addiction center.
The decision, which extends the definition of a state employee to include a contract worker, has broader implications as governments continue to downsize and outsource functions to private contractors.
Before today, the Georgia Pines Community Service Board had successfully argued that it was not liable for two workers’ actions because they were hired under a contract with an outside staffing company. The Georgia Court of Appeals ruled last year that the state board had so-called “sovereign immunity” because the workers were not state employees.
The Supreme Court disagreed, ruling that the workers were “borrowed servants” under case law and common law and therefore fall within the definition of “employee” in Georgia’s Tort Claim Act.
Marilyn Lee Summerlin had sued Georgia Pines after her son, diagnosed with mild mental retardation and a schizoaffective disorder, was found dead in his room one morning in 2001. A medical examiner ruled the death was accidental and was caused by asphyxiation.
Summerlin’s suit alleged the two workers had failed to make sure her son had ingested his anti-seizure medication or follow up with bed checks during the night.
Asphysxiation is one of the most common forms of death for the developmentally disabled, who can choke on medicine or food that has not been chewed properly, particularly if they are unattended.